People feel bound by their tribal ethos, but life in the Spirit can lift them beyond such things.
Note on Bible quotations. Scripture quotations in these readings are from the Orthodox Study Bible (Nelson, 2008). The Old Testament of that Bible is not from the Jewish Masoretic Hebrew but from the Old Greek version, the Septuagint, in a new English translation done by St. Athanasius Academy of Orthodox Theology, Elk Grove, California. This translation of the Old Greek is abbreviated as SAAS (St. Athanasius Academy Septuagint), copyright 2008. In the New Testament, the Orthodox Study Bible uses the New King James Version (NKJV), copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.
After several weeks of readings that spanned the promises and fulfillments of Abraham’s life, in our reading of Genesis we come now to Jacob, the even more immediate and rowdy ancestor of Israel.
While the Abraham stories in Genesis usually maintain a proper dignity and reverence for the worthy old ancestor, the Jacob stories present the main character in a more boisterous and not very respectful light. What we have in these stories, of course, is tribal lore, a kind of folk wisdom compounded of earthy insights about tribal traits. Old folks tend to sit around and comment on how you could see the personality traits of a prominent man showing up already in his boyhood, or of a woman in her girlhood. Out of such comments come stories of tribal fathers and mothers. They are earthy, pretty blunt, and very ethnic. They are tribal.
The birth story, verses 19-26: The destinies and behavior traits of two peoples are projected back to the circumstances of their birth. Jacob was a fighter. He was fighting in his mother’s womb—with his brother who may have gotten out of the womb first but not without Jacob hanging on to his heel, symbolizing that Jacob would eventually “supplant” [a play on the name Jacob] his older brother (verse 26).
The birthright story, verses 27-33. When they were young men, the older brother Esau was a hunter while wily Jacob was more agricultural, raising lentils to make delicious stew. Jacob catches Esau in a moment of desperate hunger and forces him to sell his “birthright” before he will give him any food. For the old folks telling the stories, this is the same punch-line as the one in the birth story—the younger son supplants the older. What in the natural course of things would have been Esau’s has become Jacob’s. Jacob got the birthright, the normal inheritance of the firstborn son.
In yet another story, which our Lectionary readings will skip over, it is told at even greater length how Jacob cheated Esau out of their father’s final powerful blessing, the blessing that would pass along the charismatic power of the ancestor to the next generation (Genesis 27).
In all these ways, the old folks looked back from the days when Israel dominated its neighboring kingdom of Edom and said, It was written in the stars – or in the signs at birth, in the foolish selling of birthrights, and the crafty manipulation of blessings – that Israel would be the great power over its brother tribe to the south.
So was tribal history shaped. So is tribal history still shaped.
The tribal destinies foretold in portents at birth, and in surprising reversals in formative years, came to be understood as divine decisions gradually worked out in human experience. The tribal mode of wisdom was replaced by the revelation mode of wisdom. Thus, finally, even the descendants of Jacob understood that it was the word or decree of God that ruled human life. This insight the devout teachers and poets of the wisdom tradition in Israel expressed in this great psalm, all 176 verses of which are a monument to their belief in God’s torah as the key to history.
If we listen to this stanza created by the devotion of the torah-lovers and hear it as the speech of Jacob, the beneficiary of the twists and turns working in his destiny, then we learn that it is not tribal history that matters in his life but only God’s “word,” “judgments,” “law,” “commandments,” “testimonies,” and “ordinances” that guide and determine his life. “I inherited Your testimonies forever, For these are the exceeding joy of my heart” (verse 111, SAAS).
This is the Jacob no longer shaped by tribal lore. It is the Jacob revered as ancestor by those who knew and loved what God had given through Moses.
The Epistle reading indicates that for those who are “in Christ Jesus” it is not destinies, birthrights, or ancestral blessings that make our fate but the Spirit of God. “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free [NRSV reads “made you free”] from the law of sin and of death”—free from the tribal bondage and determinism of the past (verse 2, NKJV).
Paul has passed through (in chapters 3-7) the discussions of justification by faith, of original sin, and of the personal bondage of the life dominated by “the flesh.” Now he unfolds the positive side of the drama of salvation in Christ, the life in the Spirit. “Spirit” was mentioned five times in the Letter to the Romans prior to this chapter; here it is used over twenty times. (Should it be “Spirit” or “spirit”? Translators get to decide this, since the ancient Greek has no such distinctions. The original KJV [1611 Facsimile] uses “spirit” throughout this passage; New KJV makes it “Spirit,” NRSV footnotes give you a choice.) “By ‘spirit’ Paul means the supernatural or divine element in human life, and his test for it is the presence of a love like the love of God in Christ” (C.H. Dodd, Romans, Harper, 1932, p. 118.)
In our reading there are two points. The life in the Spirit is very different from the former life lived “in the flesh.” The flesh is death; the Spirit is life and peace (verse 6). Secondly, the new life is the life of God’s Spirit. “You are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you” (verse 9 NRSV; NKJV reads “if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you.”). Though in the past the body was dead “because of sin” (dia hamartian), now the Spirit is alive “because of righteousness” (dia dikaiosyne). If in the old life our dead condition showed up through sinful actions, now the life of the Spirit shows up through righteous actions.
The life of the Spirit creates a sharp contrast between life and death, and therefore a sharp contrast between sinful and righteous acting.
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23.
Today’s Gospel reading begins three Sundays of readings from Matthew’s third collection of Jesus’ teachings, the parables of the Kingdom.
Modern Study of the Parables. In the last hundred years of New Testament scholarship a sharp distinction has been made between what Jesus originally meant by his parables and what his followers and later church teachers made of them, not just in their teachings but right in the Gospel texts. The early followers had changed the meanings of the parables before the Gospels were written.
The emphasis has especially been on the difference between a parable and an allegory. A parable has one main point to make and all details are subordinated to that point, while an allegory assigns significance to each of the details separately. If one allegorizes the Good Samaritan, the inn to which the wounded man is taken is the church, the robbers are the powers of Satan, the medicines given the man are the sacraments, and so on. That is an allegory. The single point of the parable, on the other hand, was simply who is a neighbor to the man in need.
On this view of Jesus’ parables, the allegorizing tendency began already here in our reading, with the parable of the Sower. Mark’s Gospel, which Matthew follows closely, had already made the fatal shift from parable to allegory.
However, the Sower (or the parable of the Soils) is perhaps one of the weakest places to apply this theory. That some of the parables may have been allegories from the beginning seems clear from the parable of the Wicked Tenants, used in all three Gospels (Mark 12:1-12; Matthew 21:33-41; Luke 20:9-19). There the vineyard is the promised land, the tenants are the Israelites, the early messengers are the prophets, and the son who is finally sent is the Suffering Servant (or Jesus). The rejection of the prophets and the Son/Servant will produce judgment and loss of the promised land. That is an allegory rather than a parable—when the two are sharply distinguished. Many scholars deny, of course, that Jesus himself told the parable of the Wicked Tenants, but that is where the theory begins to twist the evidence rather than illumine it.
Concerning the Sower. The parable tells how the sower scatters the seed so that it falls on all sorts of soil. Three kinds of soil are unproductive. On good soil the seed is very productive, so much so that the loss to the poor soils is negligible. The point of the parable—when one is certain it cannot be an allegory—is the abundance of the crops that do produce. Even the details of what happens to the seeds on bad soils are only for the sake of this one point about the abundance produced by the word of the kingdom when it is fruitful.
To which Floyd Filson commented, “Does this parable teach only that in spite of loss of labour and seed the sower still reaps an abundant harvest? No; the varied soils in which the seed falls also have point…” (The Gospel According to St. Matthew, “Black’s New Testament Commentaries,” 2nd ed., London: Adam & Charles Black, 1971, p. 160.) That single-focus theory of parables cannot suppress the fact that—in this parable—the different soils in fact “stand for” something—and from the very beginning stood for something.
If the parable is more of an allegory, it is about responding to the message of God’s kingdom—as is all this section of Matthew’s Gospel. The point of the parable then is that indeed there will be losses, represented by each kind of soil. Not all who have the chance will respond productively to the good news of the kingdom. This parable tells you some of the reasons.
There are three kinds of failure to make the kingdom message one’s own. First, there are those who just don’t get it—one “does not understand it” (verse 19, NKJV). Secondly, there are the quick starters, enthusiasts who turn out to be rootless and fall away before closing time. Thirdly, there are those with agenda paralysis. They have so many things demanding their resources that the gospel message is squeezed out and they are smothered by the thorns of the world. The fourth option is when the seed grows to abundance and the energies of life become extravagantly productive, though it is a productiveness defined exclusively by the life of the kingdom of heaven (and not necessarily by the world in general).
If Jesus himself didn’t teach the parable this way, the experience and understanding of his disciples quickly showed that it has more relevance and truth this way than however it may otherwise have been understood.
The parable of the Sower is about life as open to a new message. It insists that life is not necessarily confined by past birthrights and birth accidents, though people may allow such things to smother their lives. It insists that the power of God’s word will find its productive reception. The hearers of the word have a genuine choice, a chance to grasp the heritage of a new life, a life of the spirit/Spirit “that blows where it wishes” (John 3:8), and that brings blessing and righteousness in its breeze.